Magazine | July 21, 2014, Issue

The Land Awakens

Two thousand fourteen took a long time to get to June. Cities keep life at a steady pitch of bustle and noise, punctuated DJ-style by samples of holidays and news. In the country, change is both greater and more gradual.

The year begins in darkness. I am never up, bathroom breaks aside, to see daybreak, but I am very conscious of nightbreak. In the new-born year, the small cold sun shuts down at five o’clock. The twin of darkness is silence. Grasshoppers and crickets died months ago, there are no leaves to rustle; the stream is muffled in snow and ice. Only a strong wind will stir pine boughs audibly. There are still birds about, but they waste as little energy as possible in conversation. Once I heard a saw-whet owl in winter; I thought it was machinery — distant, tiny, repetitious machinery, fit music for the cold.

Light returns first. The days begin visibly to lengthen as early as the calendrical New Year. The sun sets farther to the north, successive full moons move lower and lower across the sky, Orion walks west. The weather follows the heavens. Some of the heaviest snowstorms can hit in March, but they are like bad arguments — sloppy and blustering. The truth of time is against them.

Then the snow shrivels, only a few scraps hanging on in the woods like spite. Rilke compared the spring earth to “a child who has memorized poems. . . . When we ask what the green and the blue are, right off she knows every word.” Better if he had written, “When we ask what the color of mud is, right off she answers, brown.” Those first snowless weeks are wan and dirty. But they are enlivened by the earliest creatures: spring peepers, and the Mourning Cloak butterfly, whose Victorian wings are dark brown with a narrow creamy border. These butterflies appear so early because they overwinter under bark or in holes in trees. By skipping the trip to Florida they can go straight to mating.

Then comes the birth of the leaves, millions of them. The carpets of their dead predecessors do not faze them; the spears of flowers and even sturdy grasses can push up through a papery corpse and bear it aloft. At branch level, whether on a bush or an 80-foot titan, the tips swell, then unfold — first red or gold, then green. In a spring with steady rain and without late frosts the sudden transfusion of greenness can seem drunken, almost psychedelic. You had forgotten what so much green looks like. Vistas are abolished. Computers have firewalls; woods have leafwalls. The trailer in which my neighbor lives, and the Winnebago in which he vacations: gone. The lights of the old resort down the road: extinguished. The hill that is three-quarters of my property: It could be a cliff face, or the Mall of America, over there, you would have to go and look to find out. Green spills into the pond, in the leaves reflected on its surface, in new cattails rising out of old stubs, in algae beards and duck weed.

In my late middle age I have taken up gardening, which is almost as precise as having an iPhone — you always know the date. The first thing you do is rescrew your irrigation hoses, which had been drained for winter. If you have old compost, you spread that. The first crops — if I can use the word for the produce of a 40-by-20-foot patch — are peas and lettuce: hard dry peas in finger holes, lettuce broadcast or planted, already growing, in little plugs. Then the batting order: basil and cucumbers, pumpkins and squash, tomatoes and beans. Each young tomato plant now huddles childishly at the base of an inverted conical wire cage. But by the end of their lives, they will all burst out writhing, like the kraken. Swallows, sitting on the posts of the garden fence in their concierge tailcoats, groom themselves and watch the no-wings dig.

Coats reminds me; ours have gone into their closets, down and camo and suede. We still keep long-sleeved shirts handy because, although it is warm, even hot, in the afternoon sun, the nights are still cool. Tingling peepers gave way to screaming tree frogs; these have both now been replaced by the frogs of summer, coughing and barking, like old men in the reading rooms of their clubs.

In June — for we have now reached June — there is the sky, blue, tall, and glorious. Cloud TV never runs out of programs, from horse tails to wide white anvils. Rain when it comes, even if it rains in buckets, only leaves more space for light.

June is the time of weddings and nature is a prodigal decorator. Catalpa trees are filled with white blossoms (and the lawns and roads beneath them are soon filled with white blossoms). Wild roses, a tangle and an eyesore year round, hang with grace. Mountain laurel, toxic for livestock (one of its names is lambkill), is covered with pink buds that open into white, red-streaked bells. I am not a fan of garden roses, but I do have one: large, flat, and pink, the apothecary rose, said to be the red rose of Lancaster.

June is the coronation of summer. Almost everything is still to come (lettuce has bolted, but there will be a second crop in the fall) — dog days and summer nights; clam bakes and corn boils; political conventions and the World Series. And everything is still to go, for although for weeks yet it will grow hotter and hotter, daylight is already beginning to contract. Our harvests and our achievements come in when we are running out of time. Then the cold comes back, and with it come celebrations — jack o’lanterns and turkeys and Santa. But there is a death’s head at the party, for we party to keep the night at bay.

So, we’ll be partying. Cheers, old eye socket.

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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